Monday, April 16, 2012

Pluralism: A Many-Splendoured Society (A Church Without God - Chapter II)

Rev. Ernest Harrison begins his second chapter of A Church Without God (1966)  by telling a couple of stories about the divide between Catholics and Protestants. One story is of two religious adversaries who used to participate in snowball fights.

The two boys, when older, sat down for a conversation, and the Protestant thought, "When you actually got to know them, they were just the same as you were. They had the same emotions, the same deep faiths and doubts, the same loves and hates, the same pleasure at laying a girl and the same guilt afterwards. The same everything. They just played in a different part of the yard. It wasn't a question of truth, or love, or anything absolute at all. He remembered looking across at John Heller (a Catholic). You bastard, he thought, and God help us! What our religion does, separating us and making us hate, and feel guilty when we love. All that matters is that we are both men. But he had said nothing."

It is clear that a good chunk of this chapter will be about religious pluralism. "Today in Canada, the United States, and England, this pluralism, implicit in the discovery that a person of an opposite religion could also be right - is now an accepted fact of our national lives. It is very good, this many-splendoured society in which we find ourselves. No longer do we feel the need for a single focus to our lives, a single God, a single true religion, a single philosophy, or a single truth. In spite of the fears of those who dreaded the arrival of pluralism, the result has not been chaos."

I would note that Harrison was a minister in the mainline Anglican Church of Canada, and that his views probably do not reflect the views of most fundamentalist preachers of his day. For instance, when I was growing up, religious pluralism wasn't even talked about, and any ecumenical behaviour was conducted with the caveat that we "stood our ground."

Harrison continues by saying, basically, that a person can be "good without God." "The claim is constantly made that religion is the bedrock of morals and the good life. This has some merit, but the claim is inadequate. We may nowadays say that any philosophy of life, no matter how well or badly articulated, no matter how logical or illogical, emotional or unemotional, objective or subjective, so long as it is sincerely based, may be a bedrock of morals and the good life."

This is much different than what I was taught and what I believed growing up. A person could not "be good without God," but was utterly lost or deceived and in danger of hellfire.  I was allowed to spend time with non-Christians, but it was clear that I should be "witnessing" my faith to them in order that they too might be saved.

Harrison speaks of growing up in church hearing about "One God. One Faith. One Baptism. The Church's One Foundation," but then when leaving church people mingled with people of different denominations. "We learned to respect the convictions of others, and felt less and less need to convert the agnostic to Christianity or the Christian to agnostic. We learned, through experience, that conversion and communication cannot live happily together. Where conversion begins, communication ceases."

Thus Harrison speaks of the chasm of life between how one lives Monday through Saturday, and what one is presented with on Sunday mornings.  Speaking from 1966 Canada, Harrison writes: "The assumption of the prayer book is clear: there are two communities, those who are saved and those who are not. It is the duty of the first to convert the second, and God's help is necessary to do this. The definition of the two communities is, to some extent, in terms of the good life; but it is mostly in terms of concepts - what one believes about God, Christ, the Trinity, and the Sacraments. A man is not to be judged by his fruits so much as the basic tenets of his belief. The Christian may live a harmful life, and must seek forgiveness, but he is still a Christian. The atheist may show all the fruits of a deep Christian belief, be he remain an atheist. It is still the duty of the first to convert the second."

A verse in the Bible comes to mind that has Jesus telling his disciples that "He who is not against me is for me," or, otherwise, "they may not play for my team, but they're still good people."  And where did we come up with this belief that our beliefs and tenets matter more than the way that we live?  There are obviously many Christians who do little good within society, and many atheists who are involved in volunteerism, etc.  "By their fruits you shall know them."  I don't think that God cares nearly so much about us holding the "right beliefs" as he does how we are loving our neighbour.

Harrison says that often church-goers can be guilted into converting non-Christians, though this is anathema to a person's personal beliefs. I can relate to this. Even as a young boy of 7 or 8, and throughout my teenaged years, I remember feeling guilty, that I should be "doing more" to convert the heathen to my version of Christianity. But at the same time, a growing part of me was looking at "non-Christians" and thinking "Umm, there's nothing wrong with these people, they just believe differently than I do."

Harrison writes that: "More and more church-goers, though still a minority, and not represented at all in the centre of ecclesiastical power and finance, have already rejected the portrait of life offered in our present prayer books, church services and sermons. They live in hope that these will change, especially the sermons. For awhile, they are willing to close their ears and gather strength from their growing conviction that they do not, as Christians, have to believe that there is a single faith, a single core to their being, a single authority in any sphere, or a single foundation to their lives."

Harrison then refutes the claim that calamity and chaos will ensue if the "Rock" of Christianity is taken away from under our feet. Hell will not break loose. Also, he says that we do not need to belittle our neighbours who may believe different than us: both of us may be right! "All this adds a new dimension to such activities as listening to sermons, taking part in liturgies, singing hymns, saying creeds, and attending synods. The sermon, which means so much to the preacher, may mean nothing to me, a little to my wife, and everything to the young man in front. I need not suppose that only one of these views is right, or even more right than another. They may all be correct. The young theological student believes that Jesus was born of a Virgin, my son thinks it may be historically correct but can take it or leave it, my daughter thinks the whole idea is nonsense. I need not suppose that any of these views is correct or even attempt to synthesize them."

Harrison then writes at length about the pluralism within individuals, that we are more complex than being either "good or evil," or "right or wrong." "A recognition of this pluralism of consciousness is a step in maturity. It denies nothing of the love that is poured out in the name of those who believe in the One True God. It simply extends it to all and so becomes Catholic. It takes away nothing from the narrow way to salvation, but extends it to Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems who have suddenly become our next-door neighbours. Modern man finds that he can only be truly himself when he recognizes all is neighbours to be as fully human as he is. The whole world has now entered his life, and no group of people can any more be excluded, denigrated, or converted."

Harrison then cautions his readers to not become complacent in their new-found plurality, or taking it on as a New Orthodoxy. We must always be open to change, pluralism must always undergo trying times.

Harrison concludes his second chapter by proclaiming, "The Christian Gospel was, and is, a noble way of life which did not move beyond a hopeful theory. As practised in Christendom, it failed, and Mother Church, corrupt and decayed, is at last seen to be dead. Pluralism takes up some of the hope, though it no longer sees Christ as essential. It will, in time, face its own distortions and has no more guarantee of solving our problems than any previous way.

Indeed, there is a form of Christianity emerging today, in 2012, where Jesus as a person is not necessarily essential. I believe that Gretta Vosper, author of With or Without God speaks further about this new Christianity. Vosper is a founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity.

While pluralism will always has its challenges (and challengers), it is here and it is here strongly. "It is the pattern for secular man, and it is good. Many men, knowing this, have moved out of the established Church; many more will do so. Those who remain find themselves in an apparent minority, loudly denounced from pulpit and church papers. Yet enough of them now perceive that they are in the pattern of the future and will remain in the Church to see that future take shape. it is part of the fear expressed in the latter part of this chapter that, when it does take shape, we may find the bishops of the day denouncing whatever it is that will be challenging the world to change once more. Even when we adjust to the fact that an old doctrine has collapsed, we still cling to the hope that our new one will surely remain for ever. In the realm of pluralism, the hope is as much a delusion as in any other."